Both sides are wrong in the ‘Israel Firsters’ debate

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Is it antisemitic to accuse someone of being an “Israel firster”? For the past few weeks some of the most prominent American liberal commentators and Jeffrey Goldberg have been shouting at each other about this, after former AIPAC-er Josh Block orchestrated a smear campaign against two liberal think-tanks on the basis that writers associated with them had made use of the phrase. The political agenda behind the attacks was transparent: both the targeted organisations – the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters (MM) – have been prominent in pushing against US support for Israel’s occupation and against an attack on Iran. But it provoked a minor split among liberal commentators, some of whom reacted by defending CAP and MM, and some of whom agreed that the phrase ‘Israel Firster’ is indeed “toxic”.

The debate, which has now simmered down, is interesting mainly for what it reveals about where liberal American discourse on Israel is currently at, and where it might be going.

First, it is another indication of Israel’s long-term secular decline in popularity among US liberals generally, and American Jews in particular. The fact that the debate is even happening indicates how far the ideological terrain has shifted. Fifteen years ago mainstream columnists would not have criticised Israel, and if they did would not have used the term “Israel Firsters” to do so, and if they had would not have been defended by other mainstream commentators. Times have changed.

The initial reaction to Block’s smear further illustrates the point: usual suspects aside, it went nowhere. Even Lanny Davis, Block’s business partner and himself a frequent apologist for Israel’s occupation, criticised it, while two other prominent Washington think tanks threatened to sever ties with him, and Block was forced to stage a partial climbdown. Glenn Greenwald is right to note that “the only reason this has become such a problem for Block is because he made the over-reaching mistake of targeting an organization that is extremely well-connected”. But more significant is that an establishment liberal organisation like CAP took such a critical line on Israel in the first place.

I say ‘initial’ reaction because, while MM dismissed the smears, CAP does appear to have censored its writers’ criticism of Israel in the wake of the incident. This is presumably due mainly to CAP’s association with the Democratic Party, which has an eye on the election and on Republican efforts to cast the Obama administration as hostile to Israel and/or Jews. But it also reflects the fact that even if criticism of Israel’s occupation can no longer be credibly dismissed as ‘antisemitic’, “Israel Firster”, with its resemblance to the charge of “dual loyalty” that has long dogged Jews, is more difficult to defend. A tactical corollary is that those commentators wishing to push back against attempts to police the discourse on Israel-Palestine ought not, perhaps, make their stand here.

Second, the debate prompts the question: is the spectre of “dual loyalty” being revived? This would be a significant development if so. Jews have historically been haunted by accusations of disloyalty, and American Jews have in the past been particularly careful to proclaim their loyalty to the US rather than Israel. Israel, in claiming to act in the name of Jews worldwide, threatened to give canards about Jewish ‘dual loyalty’ credibility, and as a result most American Jews for many decades distanced themselves from it. Norman Finkelstein’s forthcoming book documents that before Israel became an American ‘strategic asset’ by crushing Nasser in 1967, most American Jewish elites – including those who advocated most vociferously for a US-Israeli alliance after ’67 – were indifferent or actively hostile to it. More generally, “[fearful] of the ‘dual loyalty’ charge”, American Jews have “drawn away from Israel whenever bilateral relations at the state level have been tenuous and drawn closer when they have overlapped”.

If the current low-level grumbling among American elites about Israel’s service or lack thereof to US interests escalates – and it may not – anti-Israel and anti-occupation sentiment could well be increasingly articulated in the language of ‘national interests’, and criticism of those who support US backing of Israel’s occupation could increasingly take the form of accusations of dual loyalty or disloyalty to the US. This could in turn reinforce the abandonment of Israel by American Jews that is already underway.

On the substantive issue in dispute – the legitimacy of the phrase “Israel Firster” – both sides are wrong. Glenn Greenwald, MJ Rosenberg, Phil Weiss and Andrew Sullivan are correct to argue that there is nothing in principle antisemitic about accusing individuals of placing “Israel’s” interests above “American” ones. Nor is it “gross” to point out that the American media’s go-to guy on Israel-Palestine, Jeffrey Goldberg, served as a prison guard in the Israeli army. Amusingly, Goldberg now denies he was a prison guard, insisting that he was merely a “military policeman” and “counsellor” who took care of “the culinary, hygiene and medical needs of the prisoners”. This is odd because in his memoir Goldberg explicitly says that he wasn’t, whatever his formal job title, merely a counsellor:

“I was a ‘prisoner counselor,’ a job title that did not accurately reflect my duties in the related fields of discipline and punishment…”  [Prisoners, p. 28]

Which seems fair enough, since counsellors don’t generally assist in the abuse of prisoners, as Goldberg admits he did. Goldberg’s strange denial appears to have convinced Ackerman, at least, which is encouraging insofar as it suggests that people who say they like Jeffrey Goldberg have never read Jeffrey Goldberg.

More importantly, if it is the case that people increasingly perceive US policy towards Israel to be a decisively shaped by de facto agents of the Israeli state, the issue should be subject to honest and frank debate. Silencing the above-ground conversation is likely to promote the less savoury lines of discussion within it.

All that said, “Israel Firsters” rhetoric is seriously problematic:

-  It is not, contra Greenwald and Sullivan, “plainly true” that many prominent apologists for Israel are “Israel Firsters”. As noted above, virtually all of these supposedly principled devotees of the Jewish state were completely silent on or else actively critical of Israel before it became a ‘strategic asset’ of the US establishment. As Finkelstein observes, after ’67 Israel also effectively became “a ‘strategic asset’ of American Jews”:

“[joining] the Zionist club was a prudent career move for Jewish communal leaders who could then play the role of key interlocutors between the U.S. and its strategic asset.   Israel’s alleged existential vulnerability served as a useful pretext for politically ambitious Jews to champion American military power on which Israel’s survival supposedly hinged.”

Charging these “Me Firsters” with principled loyalty to Israel drastically overestimates them. The record suggests that they are, as a rule, in it squarely for themselves. This confusion is significant, for example because a more realistic appreciation of the interests driving the Israel lobby and its sympathisers would draw attention to the ways in which support for Israeli militarism benefits and speaks to elite interests in the US, rather than just in Israel.

The use of “Israel Firster”, while not necessarily antisemitic, is not innocuous either. Accusations of “Israel Firster” do imply some ugly politics. “Israel Firster” is, after all, being opposed implicitly to “US Firster”, with the tacit assumption that it is a Bad Thing to support a “foreign” state or people over one’s “own”. But why should that be so? If I am moved by images of famine in Somalia and decide to vote, in Britain, according to who I think would do the most to alleviate the effects and causes of that famine, am I being “dually loyal”? More to the point, if I am, is that a bad thing? It is particularly strange that liberals, who tend to take very seriously the idea that there are universal moral principles whose value transcends the claims of any particular state, would treat “dual loyalty” as a serious criticism.

I suspect Greenwald would reply that he rarely uses the term “Israel Firster”, that his aim in this debate is to defend its legitimacy against accusations of antisemitism rather than to positively endorse it, and that when he does use it, it is either as a rhetorical device to highlight others’ hypocrisy or as a normatively neutral description, rather than a criticism. In his case, this is generally true. But if we look at the emerging discourse more broadly, “Israel Firster” is typically used as a pejorative, which implies a set of assumptions that Sullivan, despite his dislike of the phrase, encapsulates quite well:

“[when] an American sides with a foreign government against his own president in a foreign country, what does one call that? Apart, that is, from disgusting.”

The use of the term “Israel Firster” reflects a broader trend which chooses to frame opposition to Israeli policies, and US support for them, in terms of defending or protecting US “national interests”, and which appears increasingly disposed to criticising apologists for Israeli occupation on the grounds that they are being disloyal to these “national interests”, rather than on the grounds that they are enabling a profound injustice. I suspect that this in turn reflects an influx of liberals into the solidarity movement – in this sense the watering down and degeneration of the latter might well be a consequence of its own success – and a desire by some activists to align the movement, in an attempt to gain political influence, with those American elites who are concerned that Israel’s occupation is harming US imperial interests (cf. Walt and Mearsheimer).

In either case, the strategy is dangerous. First, it relies on the gap among US elites over the wisdom of support for Israeli occupation widening, which may not happen to a sufficient degree. Second, its effect is to essentially whitewash the former. And third, it risks abandoning a principled opposition to Israel’s occupation grounded in broadly appealing progressive values – it is wrong to demolish people’s houses; it is wrong to torture children; it is wrong to shell schools and hospitals with white phosphorus; it is wrong to violently prevent a people from exercising self-determination in violation of international law; etc . – in favour of a critique based on parochial, unappealing and potentially quite vicious insinuations about people’s – mainly Jews’ – “loyalty”. This isn’t antisemitism. But it isn’t the way to win the struggle, and nor should it be how we’d want to win it.

This post originally appeared in the New Left Project.

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The claim made by Goldberg, and repeated by Ackerman and Sullivan (and others), that “Israel-firster” comes from neo-Nazis is false: I emailed all three of them a couple days ago to let them know. No correction so far. If people are throwing around false accusations that people are using… Read more »

Well, have to say this is one of the most hysterically funny attempts to whitewash the Israel firsters I have seen. And historically inaccurate about US zionist loyalty to and activities for Israel prior to 1967. Maybe Blankfort will show up and debunk this…I don’t have time. Anyway I don’t… Read more »

I strongly agree that the fixation on “loyalty” is wrong-headed and destructive to the movement. I don’t understand at all why those that are self-described “progressives” would want to appeal to nationalism. Have we forgotten what has been done in world history by “America Firsters”? Genocidal wars, torture, military occupations…… Read more »